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Saving a Community's Heart:
The Small Rural School


At the center of many small, rural communities is the school -- and as states look for ways to save money, more small districts are being consolidated. The Rural School and Community Trust, though, argues that rural students benefit from small, local schools. Included: Resources for rural school districts opposing consolidation.

Among the latest challenges to small, rural schools in the U.S. are attempts to consolidate them into large, regional districts. Some states feel that having fewer, larger districts will be more efficient and save money. But the Rural School and Community Trust, under its president, Rachel Tompkins, is helping communities hang on to their schools. The Rural Trust, a non-profit organization that supports rural schools and communities, provides communities with research showing that especially in low-income areas, small community schools can be critical to student success. The Rural Trust arms readers with the Consolidation Fight-Back Toolkit, a list of studies to convince states of rural schools' importance.

Tompkins has been with the Rural Trust since its founding in 1995. She spoke with Education World about the Rural Trust's commitment to preserving small rural schools.

Rachel Tompkins
Education World: What sparked the Rural School and Community Trust's interest in the school district consolidation issue?

Rachel Tompkins: Rural people in many states told us their concerns [after school districts were consolidated] about long bus rides for their children -- now sometimes as long as two hours each way -- and the loss of an essential community institution, the local school. A mounting body of research confirms the connection between small schools and student learning, particularly for children from poor communities.

EW: Why are more states looking at the issue of district consolidation?

Tompkins: Policy makers have the mistaken view that consolidation is the only way to save money and improve curriculum. This is not so and there's substantial research and practice to demonstrate that.

EW: Why are small schools so important in rural communities?

Tompkins: Schools often are the largest employer in rural communities and the major customers for local businesses. They are essential to a sustainable local economy. School facilities often are the location in town for music, sports, and all sorts of public events. Also, school principals, superintendents, and teachers are community leaders in many organizations, churches, town and county government. When schools close in rural communities, the economy and community infrastructure often suffer fatal blows.

EW: What kind of support is needed from state and federal governments for small rural schools to remain viable?

Tompkins: State and federal policies should provide resources at levels that enable hard-to-staff schools to recruit teachers. That means not basing pay on the cost of living, but on the cost of recruiting and retaining teachers. Federal policy also should continue and expand the e-rate program to enable schools to make maximum use of distance learning. In addition, state policies should encourage appropriate use of distance learning, should allow for flexibility in the ways schools structure curriculum offerings, and should encourage district collaboration in the use of teachers.

"Policy makers have the mistaken view that consolidation is the only way to save money and improve curriculum. This is not so and there's substantial research and practice to demonstrate that," says Rachel Tompkins, president of the Rural School and Community Trust.

States should eliminate the use of the Carnegie Unit, which measures the amount of time a student has studied a subject. This really measures "seat time" and not outcomes or performance. That would allow schools much more flexibility in organizing time for instruction. As long as there are outcome measures for what children learn and schools are held accountable for that, school structure and time use should be more flexible.

EW: How is the No Child Left Behind Act affecting the effort to maintain small schools?

Tompkins: The NCLB requirement for adequate yearly progress [among students and schools] is inappropriate in small schools because the number of students [passing standardized tests] will swing widely due to the small sample size. [The testing results] may have little to do with whether teaching and learning got better or worse. So, many small rural schools will be inappropriately declared in need of improvement. This will increase their difficulty in recruiting and retaining good teachers. They are in many cases not funded properly to start with, and do not get sufficient funds with NCLB to do what they need to do. Therefore, pressure to close them will increase.

The requirement for highly qualified teachers will cause many successful teachers in rural high schools to retire rather than get all the certifications they will need to teach different subjects. The fact that these teachers have been successfully teaching all the sciences in high school for years seems to have no bearing on this. This is a big problem in places like the Dakotas and Montana that traditionally have very high National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, high graduation rates, high college attendance rates -- successful schools by today's measures -- and also have very high percentages of teachers who teach in multiple areas for which they may not be certified. These schools will be labeled in need of improvement, will have trouble recruiting teachers, and pressure will increase for consolidation.

We recently analyzed several state plans for NCLB and found that some states are doing well in seeking and obtaining flexibility appropriate for small rural schools on some of these issues.

EW: What resources do you have available for communities opposing district consolidation?

Tompkins: We have research available to debunk the myths that bigger is better or bigger is cheaper and to make the case for small schools. We have suggested solutions for saving administrative costs through district collaboration, enriching high school curriculum through appropriate use of distance learning technology, and improving teacher quality through partnerships with higher education institutions. Those materials are available on The Rural School and Community Trust, contained in publications available by order, and summarized in our newsletters Rural Roots and Rural Policy Matters.

We also moderate an online forum for those interested in rural small school issues. People can sign up by contacting [email protected].

In selected states, we supply customized research and analysis on issues specific to the state. And when we have the resources to support this, we can provide very timely analysis to groups working at the state level to maintain community based rural schools. This was done in West Virginia and Arkansas.

This e-interview with Rachel Tompkins is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2007 Education World

Originally published 01/29/2004; updated 2/12/2007